Ker & Downey travels to Waiheke Island and finds it firmly planted on her “do not miss list” when you find yourself in Auckland.
Hop on a ferry from the Queens Wharf for the short morning sail over to Waiheke Island. Most notable for an impressive collection of wineries, olive growers, and an annual outdoor sculpture exhibit, Waiheke’s heritage dates back to the 14th century and is best learned through the stories of locals.
In true Kiwi fashion, finding a local on Waiheke who would delight in sharing their knowledge of the island isn’t terribly difficult. Walk into any storefront, pick up a taxi, or visit the local gelateria (also the place to rent motor scooters on the island) and you’ll find no shortage of friendly and warm smiles eager to share.
History suggests Waiheke, the largest of the barrier Islands in the Hauraki Bay, was settled by the Maori in the 14th Century. An epic battle in 1820 at Onetangi Beach (literally translated to Weeping Sands) nearly decimated the entire populous of the island. Travelers with a keen interest of Maori history should strongly consider a guided visit to the island’s notable sites – including archaeological excavations of fortified shelters and Maori villages dotted along the headlands (used primarily as a lookout for invading forces).
European settlers began to inhabit the island in the 1850’s, although mostly as a way post for sealers and whalers looking to resupply their ships. The early 20th century is when Waiheke really came into its current status. Pulled by the stunning scenery with abundant valleys, beaches, forests and rolling pastureland, Waiheke drew in a like-minded crowd of artists and farmers. These settlers transformed the landscape, planting vines and olive trees, and established the burgeoning wine industry that draws most visitors these days.
The island embraces a bit of the hippie spirit. You won’t find any central water delivery system – all homes have giant rain barrels situated just under their roof peaks to provide water for everything from bathing to drinking and agriculture. Reduce, reuse, recycle is fiercely embraced by the locals, and enforced on all visitors with proper refuse bins dotted along every roadside. Planning a visit to coincide with the weekly Sunday market at Ostend, where Waiheke Island residents gather to buy and sell, swap stories, and share of cup of local brew, is a must to truly appreciate how deep the conservation mindset is rooted here. If you can’t make it on a Sunday, then definitely stop into the Ostend Grocery to get a glimpse of the vibrant hippie culture, which is warmly embraced by residents.
Of course, there are the more obvious pursuits. Nearly thirty wineries, with specialties ranging from big and bold Bordeaux’s, to more subtle Sauvignon Blancs, dot the rolling hills of Waiheke. These wineries are quaint, in no way pretentious, and invite you into their cellar doors with some of the most stunning scenery gracing the backdrop of vined terraces. Many of the wineries also offer casual, yet incredibly delicious menus in their café’s and restaurants.
For the more adventurous, Waiheke Island offers a spectacular zip line adventure tour, mountain bike trails, and all of the sea faring pursuits such as kayaking, fishing, sailing and windsurfing. Or, just kick off your shoes and spend the day at one of the island’s spectacular beaches. Some even offer idyllic little coves that offer a bit of beach-combing and tide pool explorations.
Arguably, one could spend several days on Waiheke – nearly forgetting one of New Zealand’s most cosmopolitan cities lies just 30 minutes away. Thankfully the island also offers some lovely, boutique-style accommodations – most typically owner hosted lodges – to satisfy those who prefer the serenity over the hustle of the ”big city.”